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THE VANCOUVER LEARNING CENTRE STORY

Celebrating Three Decades of Service 1980-2010
by Geraldine Schwartz PhD

Anniversaries invite memories of the beginning and allow the building of the future on core founding principles.  The story of how the Vancouver Learning Centre came to be is instructive as we prepare to use its legacy to launch into a new and enhanced future.

Seminal ideas predate the beginning in 1980 of a private practice that would be focused on making transformational interventions for children and youth with learning disorders.  In the mid 1970s Dr. Donald Hebb, recognized worldwide as a leading authority on brain function, was my mentor and teacher at McGill University.  He was convinced that environmental enrichment could have a direct and lasting effect on the human brain regardless of previous performance and even in the face of developmental injury, accident or disease.  Already a giant in the field of cognitive neuroscience, he introduced conceptually the idea of brain plasticity against the current wisdom of the time.  Simply put, the implications of this theory are that if part of the brain is damaged, it can be trained to reroute learning tasks to other parts of the brain.  While performance might be slower, the person can still do tasks usually considered not possible with that kind of brain injury.

Another one of my teachers, Dr. Sam Rabinovitch, Head of the Montreal Children’s Hospital-McGill University Learning Centre, was demonstrating in the field the transformational effect of interventions that combined music and physical activities on apparatus with intense academic training in reading and math.  At the same time my PhD thesis advisor, Dr. Frank Green, using direct comparison testing at the McGill University Reading Centre was showing that the amount of direct reading instruction (compared to reading instruction combined with other activities) made a significant difference in the ability of dyslexic and learning disabled children to improve their reading skills.  He concluded that “if you want reading improvement, focus on teaching reading.”

These programs were all research based and the pilot studies included groups of children for short periods of 6 to 8 weeks.  However, no one was asking the what if question, that is: What if individual children were offered targetted interventions based on specific needs and delivered by trained teachers one-to-one over a sustained period of time?  What difference would that make for learning disabled children?

The response to this “what if?” question has been demonstrated almost a thousand times over 30 years at the Vancouver Learning Centre: The brains (and therefore the minds) of children, youth and young adults are plastic and are structurally affected (physically changed) by targetted, individualized and sustained interventions.

The idea is simple but so powerful.  Build program interventions using the detailed information gained from applying a neuropsychological lens to an educational and psychological assessment.  This approach lies at the heart of all programs at the Vancouver learning Centre.

 

FROM EARLY BEGINNINGS TO EXPANDING SERVICES

In September 1980 I began my private clinical practice out of the offices of pediatricians, Drs. Krivel, Shuman and Yue in Vancouver.  I hired and trained my first teacher, Cathy McLatchy, who visited children in their homes using materials we had stacked in the trunk of her car.  Within a year we moved to offices at 5780 Cambie Street in Vancouver.  By 1983 we doubled our space at this address.  In 1990 we again enlarged our space by moving to the Maingate Building at the entrance to Granville Island in Vancouver.  Finally, in 1997 we bought and developed our current space at 1628 West 1st Avenue, in Vancouver.

During the 1980s two issues became central to the Vancouver Learning Centre’s success:

  1. Professional Development.  As a speaker, conference leader and a Director of the International Council of Psychologists I travelled to many countries on four continents and continuously searched for the best thinking in the developing field of cognitive neuroscience and creative learning.  I sought to build a higher order training program for the faculty who were delivering the programs I designed for children using the best thinking I could find in the field.
  2. Program Development.  I also wanted to enhance the effectiveness of the programs themselves.  A highlight of my search in this regard were the workshops and training sessions I took with neuroscientist Ralph Reitan, who had built a rehabilitation program called “REHABIT” for brain injured children. Divided into five streams, each directed at different areas of brain function, these materials directly responded to my need to create individual targetted programs for brain retraining. 

In 1985 I took the business risk of buying the hundreds of puzzles, games and programs that made up the REHABIT program.  Having been trained by Reitan himself, I then trained my faculty to use the materials designated by each client’s individual program.  These materials, now greatly enhanced by new materials, still form the basis of VLC programs.

In the 1980s I had the further opportunity to use these materials with great effect on children with traumatic brain injury caused by car accidents.  Sent all over the province by the Insurance Company of British Columbia (ICBC), to remote areas and to the North and to the Okanogan, I trained teams of teachers to rehabilitate a particular child with great success. (The teachers also found these techniques very helpful with other children).

In the late 1980s I continued to participate in conferences as speaker, teacher or conference leader now focused on creative learning.  I created the “Thinkercize” program.  I found that specific creative learning techniques such as mind mapping, lateral thinking and Olympian thinking were very effective for both children at the Vancouver Learning Centre and for business leaders in the workshops we were running through a new sister company called Creative Learning International.  For the children I added special reading and drawing techniques which achieved important results.

Concerned with achieving success for the whole child, I included other new approaches:

  1. Emotional development, behaviour management, attitude changes and family support.
  2. Transferability to academic achievement and partnership with the Correspondence School Branch (now the Vancouver Learning Network) so that students could achieve high school and university credentials.
  3. Training programs in effective listening, visual attention to detail and a worldview program to create the underlying architecture and platforms on which the academic curriculum could rest.  In addition, specialized processes for teaching reading, reading comprehension, spelling, written expression and mathematics became part of our portfolio of learning.

 

EXPANDING CLIENT POPULATION

During the mid 1990s, parents lobbying me to start a school proposed a full year of full time learning for young adolescents who were failing at school and were refusing to return to the classroom.

In a first experiment four students were accepted and the BOOST (Buying Out Of School Temporarily) Program was born.  The idea was to provide temporary intensive teaching and rehabilitation to help the student transition back to school, or complete high school leaving and return to the mainstream in work or by going on to college or university.  From the beginning the BOOST Program has been an outstanding success.  Today up to ten students at a time might participate in the BOOST Program.  More than 50 students are graduates of this program.

Emerging from special Thinkercize programs for learning disabled gifted children a whole new process was created to serve a population of children who were not flourishing in their regular school programs.  Each year up to 15 percent of our student population at the Vancouver Learning Centre are gifted.  Specialized challenge programs have been built to serve these students successfully. Read more about our programs for gifted children.

Young people at risk of not completing their high school programs or who had dropped out of school and were in “dead end” situations were accepted as another category of students.  In these cases credentialed high school leaving courses were included in their programs to allow these students to complete high school.  Many of these students have now completed four year university programs.  Some have even proceeded to graduate school and professional training.

All these programs including special programs for autistic children, youth with Asperger’s Syndrome, and children with ADD and ADHD as well as all forms of learning and developmental disorders have been individually designed for clients.

 

NEW DEVELOPMENTS 2010-2011

New systems for coordinating with schools and for extending partnerships to specific schools have been developed and a leadership team to manage the Vancouver Learning Centre has been in place since 2008.  The leadership team is Geraldine Schwartz PhD, Desmond Berghofer PhD, and Andrew Taylor MA.

Professional development for faculty is ongoing.  Approximately 50 teachers have worked at the Vancouver Learning Centre over the years.  They have all been trained to use our unique and specialized programs.  Weekly ongoing training as well as other professional development opportunities are available to current teachers.  Two new teachers joined the faculty in September 2010 to meet growth in student numbers.

New services in Early Childhood for children aged 3-5 are now being offered.  These programs serve children with developmental delay and those who have superior abilities and are facing the difficulties of advanced development and special talents.  Read more.

Services for Gifted Children and for Gifted Children with Learning Disabilities have been enhanced as we begin to serve a larger number of these clients.  Students with talents and abilities well beyond the average are at serious risk for school difficulties in that they continuously face lessons in skills they have already mastered or find very simple to master on first exposure.  They face the effects of boredom in the classroom.  More seriously they never learn to take apart problems or experience new learning at their challenge level.  Acting out in the classroom, inappropriate social behaviour, difficulty with relationships, and especially acquiring the discipline of learning difficult material to mastery level is not part of their classroom experience.  They do not learn the skills of honor roll school performance, which they truly need, since it is essential that these students have access to post secondary education.

For these gifted students special challenge programs are designed at the Vancouver Learning Centre around their interests, and the skill set of excellent school performance, especially in written expression is included.  Teachers in these programs become the student’s coach and mentor.  The programs are available during the school day or after school.  School visits that work to collaborate with their classroom teacher to provide challenge tasks interior to their curriculum are part of the process.  Read more.

New services for College and University students are now in place.  Over the years I have encountered many young adults who had started college and university programs with great enthusiasm, only to find that within a short time they were struggling to achieve the grades they needed.  Inevitably, loss of focus exacerbated by a heavy dose of stress and anxiety caused them to underachieve, or to drop a subject, so that they did not earn the grades they needed to continue in professional or post graduate studies.  They faced lifelong disappointment, loss of self esteem and underachievement.  With today’s understanding of neuroplasticity and with three decades of experience in program development at the Vancouver Learning Centre new programs have been developed to serve these students.  Read more.

 

NEW STRATEGICES FOR TELLING OUR STORY

We have developed a number of new strategies for telling our story:

  1. Our website is continuously updated and continues to provide detailed information about our dynamic, unique and expanded practice.  We use strategies to ensure we are at the top of web search engines like Google so that those searching for our services on the Internet can find us easily and conveniently.
  2. Our two Boards, the VLC  Advisory Board (chaired by Desmond Berghofer) and our Parents’ Network (chaired by Debra Merchant) are kept informed of our new services and meet annually to provide advice on moving forward.
  3. Our long term partnership with the International Foundation of Learning will help us create new links to the University community and to communities of colleagues.  In partnership with the Vancouver Foundation an International Foundation of Learning Legacy Program has been created to enable the hosting of a bi-annual meeting in Vancouver to bring expertise on rehabilitation and research in neuroplacticity to our community.  The first of these initiatives is already funded for presentation in 2011-12.  We will be working to engage appropriate community partners to bring the best and most forward thinking approaches to British Columbia.  As in the 1980s and 1990s the Vancouver Learning Centre faculty will be on the front line to benefit from these programs and will be the first providers of these services to our current and future students.
  4. Ongoing discussion with public and private schools and colleagues in the Lower Mainland, along with participation in appropriate conferences will increase our community exposure.
  5. Networking.  The Vancouver Learning Centre has thrived for three decades with only word of mouth networking as a referral system.  Now as we prepare to serve an expanded client base, networking will become more important than ever and will continue as our core source of reaching new clients.
  6. Social Media.  To expand and enhance our networking activities we will be using Facebook and other social media.  I have joined Facebook and we have created a Vancouver Learning Centre Facebook business page, so that you can now find us on Facebook.  We are developing a “fan” base for the Vancouver Learning Centre as I invite current parents, friends, associates and colleagues as well as alumni of students and parents to become part of the “VLC Network” so that they in turn can share and recommend the Vancouver Learning Centre to others.
  7. Breaking News.  We have launched this new information source on the website to disseminate the growing body of exciting research coming from the new discipline of Educational Neuroscience, which focuses on research and study about neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change, and how this relates to performance outcomes in education and learning.
  8. Anniversary Celebrations.  In recognition of our 30 years of service in 2010, we will tell 30 stories of Vancouver Learning Centre students across the years from 1980 to 2010.  These stories will appear as narratives or as autobiographies from the students themselves.  They will appear on the website as Stories of Celebration.

 

IN CONCLUSION

The Vancouver Learning Centre Story is one of success based on solid evidence-based research on brain function and on the best possible practices in rehabilitation and teaching.  As we move to deliver our services more widely, we would like to assure all of our past, present and future clients that the quality of our services will be maintained and as always continuously improved by a first class faculty of teachers and psychologists dedicated to offering the very best service to each client.

We believe more strongly than ever that each person’s potential can be stretched to achieve a personal best with a full service and targetted program delivered by a faculty dedicated to achieving the very best they can for and with every individual Vancouver Learning Centre student.

 

 










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